Or, how can you tell how good your work is… or isn’t? All artists, no matter what the medium, tend to be pretty aware of the phenomenon of looking at their work and going “This is awesome! Just as good as the bestsellers, if not better by leaps and bounds!” Also, they’re aware of looking at their work and going “This is the worst thing ever! I need to hide this in a nuclear waste dump, lest it contaminate the very electrons desecrated with its presence!” In fact, most of us can cycle through both of these viewpoints multiple times on the exact same piece of work.
This is normal. I can’t tell you how to stop doing that, but I can offer some insights on how to mitigate it, and how to get better anyway.
First, on the “this is the worst piece ever!”, this phenomenon is called “the taste gap”, a term coined by Ira Glass when he spoke on it in 2009, in an interview.
“Nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish somebody had told this to me — is that all of us who do creative work … we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, OK? It’s not that great. It’s really not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste — the thing that got you into the game — your taste is still killer, and your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you, you know what I mean?
A lot of people never get past that phase. A lot of people at that point, they quit. And the thing I would just like say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be — they knew it fell short, it didn’t have the special thing that we wanted it to have.
And the thing I would say to you is everybody goes through that. And for you to go through it, if you’re going through it right now, if you’re just getting out of that phase — you gotta know it’s totally normal.
And the most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work — do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week, or every month, you know you’re going to finish one story. Because it’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you are actually going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions. It takes a while, it’s gonna take you a while — it’s normal to take a while. And you just have to fight your way through that, okay?”
The short-term solution is to find some trusted beta readers, and toss it in their laps like a grenade with the pin pulled, even as you’re cringing and waiting for the critique. Usually, what comes back is totally different from what you expect – because they’re not holding your work to the standard you are; they hold it to the standard of “does this entertain me?”
Long term? Write and publish more / paint and exhibit more / create and perform more, striving with each one to learn, to grow, to explore techniques. In music, they have a concept called “directed practice“, which is practice devoted to accuracy with the goal of systematically reducing errors. As a very long-suffering sergeant in the South African Defense Force told my husband when he was a fresh troep, complaining about endless practice on the range, “Son, an amateur practices until he gets it right. A professional practices until he can’t get it wrong.”
It’s harder with creative writing than with shooting, throwing grenades to a safe distance, or playing scales – because we can’t force the muse to write the same thing over and over, focusing on getting it right, and expect immediate feedback. But, we can set up how we write to try to hit these variables anyway, within the constraints of making stories. One variation is to take workshops with writers whom they respect for their storytelling and success, that requires the participants to write several pieces for the class. One week may be on foreshadowing, another on characterization – and by getting feedback, and giving it, and seeing how their piece and other’s pieces change (and usually improve) with the feedback.
Sometimes authors do this with their beta readers, or critique group. They’ll hand out a short story, a couple chapters, or an entire book, and based on the feedback, they’ll then focus on trying again on specific things highlighted. (In fact, several authors do this again after publication from their reviews. Whether they read them or have a trusted friend do so, they can then take the feedback and determine they’ll improve in the next story.)
And just as people can learn to play guitar or do yoga or hundred of other things from youtube videos – even if you don’t have other people giving feedback on your specific piece, you can always put it in a drawer for a few weeks or months until you can see the words on the page you actually wrote instead of the story in your head you meant to write. While doing so, write another piece, and then another. The practice writing, as well as the feedback when you start looking over older pieces, will help focus you on improving.
Whatever you do, whether you have feedback available or not, create more art. The act of writing more will help you to exercise the skills that are a writer’s toolbox, and by practicing, improve. Strive to tell the best story you can. Read voraciously; it’ll help you pick up new ways to do things, and remind you why you got into this business in the first place. But above all, as Neil Gaiman says,
Make good art.
I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Somebody on the Internet thinks what you do is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before? Make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, and eventually time will take the sting away, but that doesn’t matter. Do what only you do best. Make good art.
Make it on the good days too.
On the other end of the scale, the “this is the awesomest thing ever!”, this is a great feeling, that will help motivate you through the hard grind of doing the actual work. On the other hand, once the story is finished and before you publish it, I beseech you to consider that you might be wrong. Send it out to a beta reader who reads in your genre, or ten. If one comes back with a bit they dislike, it might just be them. But if three come back and they’re all saying the same thing, then you want to take a good hard look at what they’re saying, and why that might be.
There are some books out there that are absolutely terrible, even worse than Eye of Argon, yet the authors are convinced that their book is the best one since the Epic of Gilgamesh. There are lots more books that are pretty good, other than the glaring plothole here, the way the hero’s car changed colour and style three times and reappeared in his driveway no matter where he left it in the prior chapter, or the completely wrong science / medical terms and healing time / horse behavior, which threw readers out of the story as their suspension of disbelief exploded.
Feedback is your friend! Especially if you get it in time to fix the book prior to publication.
My own variation on this is that I can’t tell, when I finish a story, what problems it has. I know that it must have problems, but I can’t see them. And it makes me paranoid, because I don’t want to put out something that is terrible. This used to really discourage me, because I couldn’t tell if I was getting worse, or better, or stagnating… Now? I sit on the book for a bit to give myself some distance, and then send it out to beta readers. The time they take getting back is a feature, not a bug, because it helps me get past the story in my head to the story on the page, and see the problems they mention.
And I ask my husband. Since Peter has written and published a lot more books than me, while not necessarily a fan of my subgenre, he likes it well enough to go “Yes, this is up to market standards” or not. If you don’t have a similarly awesome spouse, your beta readers can really help, or a friend who’s also an author.
Questions? Comments? Rotten fruit?